Vodafone Warrior Solomone Kata delivered a man of the match performance as Mate Ma'a Tonga beat the Cook Islands 28-8 tonight to clinch a spot in the 2017 Rugby League World Cup.
Playing at fullback rather than in the centres, 2015 NRL rookie Kata provided two key second half tries in the space of six minutes to enable the Tongans to break clear from a precarious 12-8 lead and move out to a 22-8 advantage.
He also kicked four goals from five attempts as Tonga overcame a game Cook Islands side in front of a crowd of 5000 at Campbelltown Sports Stadium.
In pre-match forecasts almost all judges saw this contest being dominated by a Tongan side boasting far more NRL experience. The Kukis didn't care for the predictions, though, and instead gave the battle a huge shake-up from the outset.
Enjoying plenty of possession early on, they shifted to the right where fullback Jordan Rapana put wing Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad over wide out. Rapana couldn't convert but there was no question the Cook Islanders deserved their 4-0 lead.
It didn't last too long with Kata providing a nice overhead pass for Manly wing Jorge Taufua to score in the left-hand corner. Kata's conversion was brilliant to put Tonga 6-4 ahead.
The Cook Islands came straight back, hitting the right again where Wigan centre Anthony Gelling was all power busting through defenders to score for an 8-6 lead.
Four minutes out from the break, the Tongans were back in front courtesy of a Cook Islands error. Seconds later Tonga had turned the gift into a Mahe Fonua try near the posts enabling Kata to convert for a 12-8 halftime lead.
For the first 20 minutes of the second half there was no change to the score but in the 62nd minute Kata - despite being aflicted by severe leg cramps - collected a superb Fonua tip on to score out wide. He couldn't quite convert but Tonga had a vital eight-point lead at 16-8.
Just six minutes later it was Kata making another statement and effectively sealing the result. His last tackle kick bounced wickedly, Kata following up to collect the loose ball for his second try and adding the conversion for a 22-8 lead.
The lead was extended to 20 points with a Peni Terepo try and Kata conversion.
Match details | Campbelltown Sports Stadium, Sydney
Cook Islands 8 (Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad, Anthony Gelling tries).
Mate Ma’a Tonga 28 (Solomone Kata 2, Jorge Taufua, Mahe Fonua, Peni Terepo tries; Solomone Kata 4 conversions).
Halftime: 12-8 Tonga.
Referee: Gerard Sutton.